Annie Ernaux: at the age of 78 one of France’s great writers is finally wowing the English-speaking world



File 20190409 2924 gsmyos.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Booker-listed Annie Ernaux.
YouTube

Elise Hugueny-Léger, University of St Andrews

It was 1974 when the French writer Annie Ernaux published her first book, Les Armoires Vides (Cleaned Out). It is a fictionalised account of her illegal abortion ten years earlier, as a student gradually moving away from a working-class upbringing in Normandy. The book came out 25 years after Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist text The Second Sex, yet French society remained judgemental – and often hypocritical – about women’s reproductive rights. Cleaned Out acknowledged the many working-class women who had to resort to clandestine, often life-threatening procedures before the laws were changed in 1975.

From the beginning, Ernaux’s stark prose helped establish her as an uncompromisingly honest writer. In the 1980s and 1990s, she would rise to greater prominence through autobiographical works such as La Place (A Man’s Place), an account of her father’s life, which won her the Renaudot Prize in 1984. She is now seen as one of France’s major writers and her texts are widely taught in schools and universities.

But, until very recently, she was unknown to most of the English-speaking world. That is changing thanks to two recent translations. Les Années (The Years, 2008) is a “collective autobiography” spanning six decades of personal and collective history, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In L’Événement (Happening, 2000), Ernaux returns to the subject of illegal abortion, but this time tells her own non-fictionalised story.

Two memoirs

The Years gained almost unanimous recognition when it was published. It sits at the junction between autobiography, sociology and collective memoir, highlighting the profound socio-cultural changes that Ernaux witnessed from her childhood in the 1940s to the end of the century. The book was praised for its original narrative form, using “she” or “we” instead of “I” to tell Ernaux’s story.

The Years, 2008.

To trace the inescapable passing of time, The Years draws in everything from popular phrases to songs to advertisements, from iconic objects to historical events to personal anecdotes. Along the way, the book tells the evolution of women’s place in French society and their fights for sexual freedom and independence.

When Happening was published in 2000, the French media reacted much more cautiously. It is likely that some critics were not comfortable with the subject matter and the raw style of writing. Here’s an extract, for example, about the woman carrying out the abortion:

Only now can I visualise the room. It defies analysis. All I can do is sink into it. I feel that the woman who is busying herself between my legs, inserting the speculum, is giving birth to me. At that point I killed my own mother inside me.

Ernaux has said that part of her intention with the book was to lift the lid on what the French abortion laws had meant in practice:

Although abortion was mentioned in many novels, no details were given about what actually took place. There was a sort of void between the moment the girl learns she is pregnant and the moment it’s all over.

Happening, 2000.
Wikimedia

With precision, but without pathos, Happening details the prevailing atmosphere of moral judgement of 1960s France – and Ernaux’s isolation and despair at a time when the word abortion “had no place in language”. She describes the gruesome conditions in which she nearly died: after finally finding a back-street abortionist, Ernaux had a probe inserted and was told it would cause her to miscarry in a few days. This then happened at her student residence and she was taken to hospital with a haemorrhage.

Happening is not only an account of this intrinsically physical, traumatic and personal experience. It is also about society’s attitudes to women at the time – particularly working-class women – explored through the reactions of various men to her predicament. The father of the unborn child, a middle-class student at the Sciences Po university in Bordeaux, leaves her to her own devices. Doctors show her little sympathy for fear of the laws of the time.

Ernaux in the 1960s.
Inventoire

Male students that she talks to are fascinated by her “condition”, and one even tries to take advantage in the knowledge that there’s no danger of getting her pregnant. Having been admitted to hospital, Ernaux is humiliated by a junior doctor, who on seeing her bleeding shouts that he’s “no plumber”. When he discovers that she is a university student, he becomes much more sympathetic.

Nearly 20 years after it was originally published, Happening has come to be seen as a landmark piece of writing about abortion. The text is now often mentioned during debates on the subject. Last year, for instance, on the day of the Irish abortion referendum, the radio station France Culture devoted a feature to Ernaux.

Distasteful truths

Ernaux acknowledges in Happening that “this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful”. The same could be said of much of her other work. Ernaux has written from the same direct perspective about numerous issues not deemed “literary”, including sex, stains, illness, the ageing body, dementia and drunkenness.

Writing is for Ernaux a matter of making lived experience visible, especially that of women – and not taking their rights for granted. As she writes in Happening:

If I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.

Giving a voice to those being silenced lies at the heart of Ernaux’s writings. She spoke of her support for the #MeToo movement in a recent interview, but has also expressed affinity with the gilets jaunes, which she sees as a manifestation of deep social injustice and the elite’s contempt towards the working class and unemployed. This makes her “arrival” in the English-speaking world particularly timely at the age of 78.

When French politician Simone Veil died in 2017, many “merci Simone” tags were left on walls, not least for the crucial role she played in shaping the country’s modern abortion laws. Many readers have written to Ernaux to say “merci Annie” in acknowledgement of her feminist writings. She deserves to be recognised in the international canon of great French writers, and hopefully we are now finally seeing this starting to take place.The Conversation

Elise Hugueny-Léger, Senior Lecturer, School of Modern Languages, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Five books on work by French authors that you should read on your commute



File 20190228 106371 3bw5gr.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

shutterstock

Amy Wigelsworth, Sheffield Hallam University

An emerging genre of fiction in France is providing an unlikely brand of escapism. Growing numbers of French writers are choosing work as their subject matter – and it seems that readers can’t get enough of their novels.

The prix du roman d’entreprise et du travail, the French prize for the best business or work-related novel, is testament to the sustained popularity of workplace fiction across the Channel. The prize has been awarded annually since 2009, and this year’s winner will be announced at the Ministry of Employment in Paris on March 14.

Place de la Médiation, the body which set up the prize, is a training organisation specialising in mediation, the prevention of psychosocial risks, and quality of life at work. Co-organiser Technologia is a work-related risk prevention consultancy, which helps companies to evaluate health, safety and organisational issues.

The novels shortlisted for the prize in the past ten years reflect a broad range of jobs and sectors and a whole gamut of experiences. The texts clearly strike a chord with French readers, but English translations of these novels suggest many of the themes broached resonate in Anglo-Saxon culture too.

The prize certainly seeks to acknowledge a pre-existing literary interest in the theme of work. This is unsurprising in the wake of the global financial crisis and the changes and challenges this has brought. But the organisers also express a desire to actively mobilise fiction in a bid to help chart the often choppy waters of the modern workplace:

Through the power of fiction, [we] want to put the human back at the heart of business, to show the possibilities of a good quality professional life, and to relaunch social dialogue by bringing together in the [prize] jury all the social actors and specialists of the business world.

What better way to delve into this unusual genre than by reading some of the previous prize winners. Below are five books to get you started.

1. Underground Time

The first prize was awarded to Delphine de Vignan for Les heures souterraines. In this novel, the paths of a bullied marketing executive and a beleaguered on-call doctor converge and intersect as they traverse Paris over the course of a working day. A television adaptation followed, and an English translation was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. Work-related journeys and the underground as a symbol for the hidden or unseen side of working life have proved enduring themes, picked up by several subsequent winners.

2. The Man Who Risked It All

Laurent Gounelle’s Dieu voyage toujours incognito, winner of the 2011 prize, takes us from the depths of the underground to the top of the Eiffel Tour, where Alan Greenmor’s suicide attempt is interrupted by a mysterious stranger. Yves promises to teach him the secrets to happiness and success if Alan agrees to do whatever he asks. This intriguing premise caught the attention of self-help, inspirational and transformational book publisher Hay House, whose translation appeared in 2014.




Read more:
Five books by women, about women, for everyone


3. The Reader on the 6.27

Le liseur du 6h27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, the 2015 winner, tells the story of a reluctant book-pulping machine operative. Each day, Ghislain Vignolles rescues a few random pages from destruction, to read aloud to his fellow-commuters in the morning train. The novel crystallises the fraught relationship between intellectual life and manual work.

It also illustrates the tension between culture and commerce, arguably at its most pronounced in France, where cultural policy has traditionally insisted on the distinction between cultural artefacts and commercial products. The Independent review of the English translation describes the book as “a delightful tale about the kinship of reading”.

4. Undersea View

Slimane Kader took to the belly of a Caribbean cruise ship to research Avec vue sous la mer, which claimed the 2016 prize. His hilarious account of life as “joker”, or general dogsbody, is characterised by an amusing mishmash of cultural references: “I’m dreaming of The Love Boat, but getting a remake of Les Misérables” the narrator quips. The use of “verlan” – a suburban dialect in which syllables are reversed to create new words – underlines the topsy-turvy feel.

Unfortunately, there’s no English version as yet – I imagine the quickfire language play would challenge even the most adept of translators. But translation would help confirm the compelling literary voice Kader has given to an otherwise invisible group.

5. Woman at Sea

Catherine Poulain’s Le grand marin, the 2017 winner, is a rather more earnest account of work at sea. The author draws on her own experiences to recount narrator Lili’s travails in the male-dominated world of Alaskan fishing.

Le grand marin (the great sailor) is ostensibly the nickname Lili gives to her seafaring lover. The relationship is something of a red herring though, as the overriding passion in this novel is work. But the English title perhaps does Lili a disservice – she is less a floundering Woman at Sea, and more the true grand marin of the original.

This year’s shortlist includes the story of a forgotten employee left to his own devices when his company is restructured, a professional fall from grace in the wake of the Bataclan terrorist attack, and a second novel from Poulain, with seasonal work in Provence the backdrop this time.

The common draw, as in previous years –- and somewhat ironically, given the subject matter –- is escapism. We are afforded either a tantalising glimpse into the working lives of others, or else a fresh perspective on our own. English readers will be equally fascinated by French details and universal themes – and translators’ pens are sure to be poised.The Conversation

Amy Wigelsworth, Senior Lecturer in French, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Colette: writer, feminist, performer and #MeToo trail blazer



File 20190116 163274 16lew65.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Colette, photographed by Henri Manuel.
Wikimedia Commons

Diana Holmes, University of Leeds

The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.

Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.

The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.

But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.

The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.

When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.

She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.

In the 1907 pantomime which included a kiss with a woman.
Wikimedia Commons

Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.

She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.

The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)

Sex and sensuality

Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.

She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:

Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.

In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.

In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.

She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.

One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional – writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.

Diana Holmes is the author of:

Middlebrow Matters: Women’s reading and the literary canon in France since the Belle Époque.The Conversation

Liverpool University Press provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

Diana Holmes, Professor of French, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Outrage in France Over Book Award Winner


The link below is to an article that reports on outrage in France over a book award winner – a self-published book winner on Amazon.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/15/french-bookshops-revolt-after-prize-selects-novel-self-published-on-amazon

Life of George Washington – Washington Irving


I have been reading the five volume work of Washington Irving on the ‘Life of George Washington’ over the last little while. Currently I am in the middle of the second volume. Though I am only reading two to ten pages a day and don’t view this reading exercise as particularly pressing, I am enjoying my reading experience very much. It is an easy to read book, with chapters divided into very manageable portions. As a whole, the five volumes make up about 2000 pages.

This work by Washington Irving on the life of George Washington covers the life of the first president of the United States, shedding much light on the life and times of Washington. Thus far I have covered the period of Washington’s early life, through the war against the French and Indians (in which Washington played an important role) and into the American War Of Independence (in which Washington led the fledgling nation’s army against the British). This biographical work seems to be an excellent life of George Washington, but also provides an insight into the players and the history of the times.

In short, this five volume work on Washington is excellent and I would highly recommend reading the entire work on an important person in, and period of, American history. The work is available at the Internet Archive and I have links to the five volumes on my website at:

http://tracingourhistory.com/history.html